MTSU Social Work Department

SW 2630: Interviewing Skills

The First Session

The first interview between a social worker and client is especially important and requires an understanding of some important skills in addition to those which we use throughout the helping process. Listening, attending, and responding as they have been covered in previous handouts should be used when we start a new professional relationship, but the ideas presented below also need to be considered. For the puposes of this discussion, the interview may be thought of as divided into three sections: initiation, development, and closing. Like many of the other ideas in this course, this material comes originally from a wonderful book, The Helping Interview by Alfred Benjamin. I have added to and changed his ideas to reflect my own philosophy, but the substance of this discussion should be credited to him.


When we first meet a new client we should be sure to treat them with the respect and courtesy which are due anybody. This starts with a:

1. Greeting. You should remember and your client should be assured that the interview is primarily a contact between two human beings, and the rules that make human interaction more pleasant are in effect. A warm greeting is an excellent way to do this. Say "Hello, how are you?" or something similar which is genuine and well-intended.

2. Introduction. Clients also benefit from knowing who you are and knowing that you are familar with their names. In most cases, you will know the name of your client. Use it as you introduce yourself. If you do not know the person's name, ask. Names are important to the development of a relationship.

The greeting and introduction should be accompanied by the client entering your office and sitting down, or you entering the client's home or other space. A lot of this is done in response to non-verbal communication, such as a wave of your hand to indicate a chair where your client can sit. Sometimes we need to be explicit. Saying, "Would you like to have a seat?" can be helpful in many situations.

Another issue that is often important at this point is a handshake. Some clients expect to shake hands when they meet you; some do not. It is usually appropriate for the worker to respond to the client's lead in this matter. If your client extends her or his hand, you may respond by shaking it. There are a wide range of cultural differences surrounding this custom, so pay attention to those. The most important thing is for you to feel safe and comfortable: you do not have to have any physical contact with anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable!

3. Chit-chat. It is often valuable to use a little bit of informal dialogue before starting with the reason for the interview. It is not necessary if it does not feel right, but often comments about the weather, about parking, or such things that people often say to each other to "break the ice" can be helpful additions to the beginning of a session.

4. Invitation. Often clients start right in on the reason they came to see a social worker. It makes the beginning a lot easier when they do. However, this certainly does not always happen so you need to be prepared with an "opening line," something like, "Would you like to begin talking about the reason you came?"

5. Nudge. The invitation is not always enough. Clients often need a little more push. Push gently with a comment about the fact that you want to help, but you need to hear about their situation. Try to avoid using the word "problem" or other terms that assume negative perceptions about their need to see a social worker.

6. Explanation. Sometimes it is just very difficult for a client to start sharing their perspective. They need to hear from you. A little explanation can help. Talk briefly about what services your agency provides. Talk about the fact that you can help, but that it is good for your client to tell something about themselves before you can do that. Talk abou the idea that it is sometimes difficult to start, but that things usually are easier once they do get started. Ask questions about the good things that are happening in your client's life. Do these one at a time. Pause, use silence, pay attention; give your client plenty of chances to get started.

Initiation With a Resistant Client

There are some exceptions to the above process necessary when interviewing a client who does not want to be there. We try to act as if things are going to go well, but a resistant client is in a situation that may make this difficult. After the greeting and introduction we often have to offer an explanation of why we came to see the client, or why the client was sent to see us. We need to be especially careful to remember to be patient, not take any expression of anger personally, and show as much respect as possible for this individual who is in a difficult situation.


Ideally, the first session will include an opportunity for the client to learn to become comfortable with telling you what they need you to know in order to get started. Remember that the development of a trusting relationship is the most important thing to do at the beginning of the process. This usually happens best as we begin to do assessment as well. That is what most clients expect and that is what helps both of you move toward an understanding of what can be done to help. It is important to also remember to look at "the big picture" as well as specifics. These three questions can help:

1. Am I helping my client open up her/his perceptual field as much as possible? This means that the client should be talking about and aware of strengths as well as weaknesses, resources as well as obstacles, opportunities as well as crises. They should use you as a chance to see things from a new angle, hopefully a more positive one that includes the seeds of solutions as well as the scope of problems.

2. Am I helping the client move from an external to an internal frame of reference? This is an ambitious goal that is sometimes unrealistic for the first session, but it is usually worth a try. The issue here is that people with problems often blame the world rather than taking responsibility. How far can the client go in beginning to take responsibility? How much can we empower the client without overwhelming them?

3. Am I going along with the client, or forcing him to go along with me? Along with the ideas that we have about what should be accomplished during the first session, it is most important to remember to "start where the client is" and respond to what the client is needing. There is a dance between your acting on your understanding of what needs to be accomplished and the client's need to be heard. Dance gracefully.


There are two things that should happen in closing:

1. Both worker and client should be aware that the session is coming to an end. Before you finish and the client leaves your office (or you leave the place where the client is), make sure that the client knows that closing is taking place. When there is five or ten minutes left, say something like, "I see that we have a few minutes left, let's be sure we have covered what we need to before we finish."

2. No new material should be discussed. New material may be introduced, but in most cases it should be clear that it will be discussed in more detail at your next interview. There are exceptions to this: some new material will obviously need to be explored to resolve a crisis, but then the closing will not take place until that is done. Try not to go beyond the expected interview time unless absolutely necessary.

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